Lawrence B. Johnson/ Special to The Detroit News
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When Detroit Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert suddenly announced her resignation in May, principal second violinist Geoffrey Applegate saw 25 years of artistic commitment go up in smoke.
“After Emmanuelle’s last performance, I went home and burst into tears,” said Applegate, a 31-year DSO veteran who became the latest in a spurt of departures from the orchestra when he announced his retirement June 21.
“It was like getting divorced or death. Emmanuelle and I played together for 25 years,” he said. “You become psychic. You could be blindfolded and know what each other was going to do. I’m not sure I want to go through all that again. We had one of the strongest string sections in the world.”
During the six-month strike and its aftermath, what had been a standard trickle of turnover for reasons other than retirement — one musician or none leaving each year between 1990 and 2007 — has become a surge.
In the first six months of this year, six musicians have resigned, and two more have retired. Musicians who left, as well as others who remain, cite a pervasive lack of trust in management, uneasiness about the debt-ridden orchestra’s future and anger at music director Leonard Slatkin for what is perceived as his sympathy with management during the strike.
Among the disaffected is violinist Lilit Danielyan, who recently resigned after 11 years with the DSO. She cited a lack of mutual trust and respect between the musicians and DSO President Anne Parsons as a primary reason for her departure.
“The atmosphere at the DSO is not optimistic or enthusiastic,” she said. “(The orchestra) is poorly managed, and I am afraid that very soon the DSO will become a community or regional orchestra. But management is acting like nothing has happened. It is heartbreaking.”
As for signs of bad management, Danielyan said: “The evidence is right in front of our eyes. The musicians are leaving. Show me any top 10 orchestra in U.S. where musicians are leaving and retiring so rapidly.”
Parsons acknowledged the tension between management and musicians and said a certain amount of upset goes with any transition. The departures, she said, “are individual decisions of people who chose not to make a commitment to Detroit and to the DSO. People who don’t want to stay with it shouldn’t stay with it.”
In recent meetings with the musicians, Parsons said, she and Slatkin “both told the orchestra how much we cared and how we wanted to move ahead together. Everyone has been through a very difficult time. Are there wounds? I know there are.
“So you work together,” she said. “You try to open communication.”
DSO board member Mel Lester, a retired Franklin physician, endorses Parsons, whose contracted recently was extended.
“She’s a devoted and competent executive who knows the business and cares about the musicians,” he said. “When you go through these rough times, someone is going to take the brunt. I’d say 20 percent of the musicians are unhappy. The unhappiest speak the loudest.”
Tony Woodcock, president of the New England Conservatory and former president of the Minnesota Orchestra, sees the spurt in departures from the DSO as an indication that “financial reality and organizational challenges facing the (DSO) undermine optimism for the future.
“Their immediate strategy needs to address the long-term financial health of the organization, which was not resolved at the end of the strike,” he said. “In particular, the management of substantial debt, the need to grow a much depleted endowment and to build sustainable sources of income at the box office and with their major donors.”
The DSO is in negotiations with a consortium of banks over a $54 million real estate bond that’s in default, while the unrestricted portion of the orchestra’s endowment has fallen to $16.6 million from $19 million in February. Endowment principal has been used to make up more than $9 million in revenue shortfalls since 2008.
Ratified in early April, the DSO’s new three-year contract saw the musicians’ base salary drop to $79,000 from $104,650 per year, the number of work weeks fall to 36 from 52 and the number of contracted musicians decrease to 81 from 96.
Woodcock underscores the importance of “rebuilding relationships within the organization — musicians, board, staff — which have been severely affected, so that some sort of alignment comes into place.
“This will give them the foundation for the next major strategy: their relationship with their community.”
Bassist Marshall Hutchinson, who remains with the DSO but expects more of his colleagues to leave, said many musicians are not convinced of the board’s commitment to preserving a top-notch orchestra. Still, he said, “There are a lot of dedicated people who care about the orchestra on the board and in the community.
“Hopefully, when the new season begins (in October), we’ll see all this stuff in the rearview mirror. This could be a very exciting time.”
Indeed, Slatkin, who recently was conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic on tour in South America, said in an email: “The best of times are ahead of us.”
He said the two key issues now are keeping the musicians who have stayed and attracting new talent. “As far as replacing those who have left, we have a schedule of auditions set,” Slatkin says.
“We will also be involved in more active recruiting of musicians from around the world. To show the commitment, I have been authorized to actually hire more musicians than specified in the contract should an audition provide us with more than one winner.”
During the strike, some musicians felt Slatkin did not speak up for them and even sided with management, and the music director has yet to regain the orchestra’s confidence, said oboist Shelley Heron, who will continue with the DSO and serves as a musicians’ representative on the DSO board.
“I think many musicians don’t really have a clear picture of where Leonard wants to take the orchestra, so we are cautious and questioning,” Heron said.
Slatkin said he recently spoke to the orchestra about his role during the strike. “It may not have satisfied everyone, but it did go a long way in clearing the air,” he said. “They know that I am not going to let the artistic quality slip away.”
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. firstname.lastname@example.org